“Freeze” update: we jumped the gun.

Progressives jumped the gun on the freeze proposal. It still may be lousy politics, but it’s cosmetic economics. Not only entitlements but stimulus spending, a new jobs bill, and health care are exempt.

Progressives have jumped the gun on the freeze proposal.

It still may be lousy politics, but it’s cosmetic economics.  Not only entitlements but stimulus spending, a new jobs bill, and health reform (stipulating that that would cost money rather than saving it) will, per an official leak to the Washington Post, be exempt. Jared Bernstein, in his interview with Rachel Maddow, said the same.  Alongside some unhelpful talking points, Bernstein did say unequivocally “There’s a bunch of emergency spending that’s outside of this freeze,” more specifically  “the recovery act” and “new jobs initiatives that the President will be outlining in the State of the Union.” Obama may not get the jobs bill passed–but that’s a matter of what he fights for and wins in the next weeks and months, not of what he’s proposing now.  Let’s not forget either that a spending freeze that exempts entitlements and veteran’s spending means a substantial increase if spending on those programs is going up and those programs represent much, much more of the budget than the discretionary programs.

Finally, as Mark pointed out (and Bernstein confirmed), the proposal is not an across the board freeze but a proposal to cut some programs while pushing others.

Given that the point of the proposal is apparently to trick the bond markets, there’s no great shame in the fact that the rest of us were tricked too, for a few hours.  But unless Obama has sent lots of surrogates out to lie about his own proposal–unlikely, since they’d get caught–it’s our fault if we go on repeating that Obama is proposing Hoover/Mellon economics.  It’s just not the case.

Obama still may let us down in the SOTU, or in how much or how hard he pushes for health reform–still the main issue before us.  But in our zeal not to miss betrayals when they’re present, let’s not imagine them where they’re absent.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

16 thoughts on ““Freeze” update: we jumped the gun.”

  1. I'm tired of fishing for nuance. A spending 'freeze' is the same as a spending "_freeze_"* as far as politics goes.

    And the notion of military spending being exempt rubs salt into the wounds for me. I know the politics of cutting spending on defense is bad, but defense is not the only thing worth funding.

  2. Andrew, Obama has conceded the GOP argument with this announcement; the GOP has got to be drawing up bills cutting of 'bucks' from their T-bone steaks even as we speak.

  3. Oooohhhh, I get it!! Obama is playing 11-dimensional chess again, or wait, is it up to 14 dimensions now? He is always sooooo far ahead of us, how can we ever keep up with such brilliance?

    It's really funny watching the ever more desperate, floundering grabs at some proof, some vague shred of evidence, that Obama really, really, really isn't the most awful president since Lil' Bush. If you just keep clapping louder and saying "I do believe in Hope! I do believe in Hope!" maybe it will all go away — but probably not.

  4. If someone had said last November that Obama would get a $800B stimulus passed, then another $200B jobs bill passed, then lock in the spending levels represented by those bills through 2013, I don't think many people would have complained that he was being too obsessed with the deficit numbers. Now we haven't got the jobs bill yet, but that first sentence is what the current plan seems to be. (I know it's a spending cap not a spending floor, but in any political system, caps become floors very quickly.) And yet it's being attacked from the left for being much too conciliatory. This seems like a very odd position to hold.

    It's worthwhile comparing this to what's going on in Australia. There the big debate is between the left, which wants to maintain stimulus spending levels, and the right, which wants to quickly roll them back. The left position there looks like the smart one economically and politically. And it's also Barack Obama's position. Australia is doing better than the U.S. right now, which is why Obama wants another jobs bill and another year or two before the freeze comes in, but it looks like he's adopting the winning left-wing position from Australia.

    We'll see how this plays out, but I'm a little more optimistic about the politics of this move. It's true that it does concede some rhetorical ground, but that might well just be conceding the obvious. I think the real results will come in when we see GOP responses. There isn't that much in the budget which it is popular to *cut*. If the GOP feels the need to move to the right on this, they'll have to say that they're making cuts, and that's unpopular. It's even worse if they can be forced to itemise the cuts. If the GOP just agrees with the level freeze, then spending is neutralised as an electoral issue. That's not as good as having spending be an issue we win on, but it seems better than the status quo. I've over-simplified the possible GOP responses here, but I'm guardedly optimistic that they won't be able to make a good response.

  5. DancingOpossum, I've been disgusted with Obama's lack of leadership over the past week, but — wouldn't ANY U.S. president be the worst president since George W.?

  6. Yes – the republicans are absolutely right about the government. Military spending is great, taxes on the rich don't need to go up, and the problem is all of the money that the government wastes on all of those social programs. Democrats agree completely but promise to be better managers.

    What a brilliant argument.

  7. While you're laughing about your guy lying to the rubes, it might be worth remembering that, as far as he's concerned, we're ALL "the rubes".

    It might also be worth remembering that lies only work while you've still got a reputation for telling the truth. Once you lose that, you can even tell the truth and not be believed. He's about reached that point, I think, and in record time.

  8. I don’t see any eleven- or fourteen- or any-cardinality-of-dimensional chess here. The “freeze” that’s being bruited about now sounds a lot like the kind of budgeting Obama touted during his debates with McCain. As a Senator, Obama was a moderate Democrat. He campaigned for President as a moderate Democrat. Moderate Democrats talk about “fiscal responsibility” and some, like Clinton, actually practice it—as compared with Republicans, like Reagan and both Bushes, who talk about “fiscal responsibility” and then drive up the deficit year after year.

    I wish the Defense Department wasn’t treated as some kind of talisman immune from all discussions of “fiscal responsibility”, but I’ve figured out by now that I’m not going to see a President Dennis Kucinich in my lifetime.

  9. Insults are always fun, and I've certainly been known to engage in them too. That said, I'm still wondering whether anyone has a substantive response to my actual point: that the proposal would allow for a substantial increase in spending–and stimulus spending in particular–and therefore bears no resemblance whatsoever to deflationary economics.

  10. ChristianPinko, you are right. Thanks for the correction — d'oh! No wonder I am too stupid to follow the brilliance of Obama's grand master plan.

    "Obama wants another jobs bill"

    Yeah, because the first was one was so incredibly successful! It created, like, at least 10 jobs.

    Brett Bellmore you nailed it.

  11. Andrew, my answer is that if it's called a spending freeze, no matter how much nuance is in there, it will be interpreted as a hard freeze in Congress and the 50 States' legislative bodies. The effect of calling it a freeze trumps the details up and down the board. And omitting military spending from needing cuts means that the Pentagon's budget will continue to dominate all discretionary spending.

  12. The desperation I smell in this post is pathetic.

    If this is a real freeze, it's terrible policy. If it's a fake freeze then it's even worse politics. Either way there's literally no policy or political upside. There is no way short of the world's greatest acid trip to spin this as anything other than a major fail by the Obama "administration."

  13. Hey, the dumbasses in the White House used "freeze." Were they lying then or are they lying now? Either way, they have fallen down the GOP rabbit hole and will never escape. Nor will we. Idjits. And it's "eleventy-seven dimensional chess."

  14. Andrew, I did, and MobiusKlein and Robert Johnson; perhaps you should *read* what we said.

    And I'm really echoing Krugman. Obama has conceded the GOP's argument. That's really bad. And that's before the senate gets ahold of things.

  15. Andrew, I agree that there's no evidence that Obama has adopted Hoovernomics, and thus the progressives are overreacting. But it was still a mistake: the timing is wrong, and nearly all of the people in Washington to whom Obama is responding are preening hypocrites on fiscal issues (the Washington Post as well as the senators who voted to kill the estate tax).

    Let's make a target, say 7%. I don't want to hear the words "fiscal", "deficit", or "freeze" until unemployment is below that level.

  16. I'll be glad when the health care bill passes. People been on pins and needles for so long, freak-out mode is in full effect. Everyone has been invited to the crazy party. It seems every little thing is now cause for panic, evidence for why Obama has finally shown himself to be a Republican in disguise. Which is ridiculous.

    I don't particularly like the idea. I'm not sure why we aren't pushing for more stimulus, as the Keynsian model would seem to instruct. I'm not sure why defense is off limits. This does seem like a really shallow political ploy. But whatever – this is politics and no one is perfect. As a liberal facing a country in which at least half the populace disagrees with me entirely, much less understands my point of view, I've still got a large amount of representation. And for that I am thankful.

    Positive signs are appearing that Democrats are sorting things out. Hopefully when we get a bill passed we can all take a break and look at the bigger picture.

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